Damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, and tales of love and adventure - these notions of chivalry have shaped popular understanding of the Middle Ages. Artwork from the period reveals that chivalry, first developed as a model code of conduct for the medieval knighthood, eventually permeated almost every aspect of aristocratic culture.
"The concept of chivalry is one that many of us are familiar with from our younger days when we read tales of King Arthur and
Courtly Love and Marriage
Telling of heroes' exploits in life and love, romances were among the most cherished illuminated texts of the Middle Ages. Their popularity was in large part due to the captivating images of lovers exchanging amorous letters, arranging furtive trysts, and strolling arm in arm on wealthy estates. These tales typically focused on a young knight's adventurous pursuit of an aristocratic woman who was already married or promised to a high-ranking nobleman. The knight would perform brave and honorable deeds to become worthy of his lady's esteem, and - because the nature of the affection was often secret - their devotion would stand apart from worldly concerns.
"The best-known tales of courtly love are those involving the knights of the Round Table," says
One of the Getty's newest manuscript acquisitions,
Hunting and Feasting
In the Middle Ages, chivalric customs surrounding food and feasting distinguished the nobility from commoners. Courtly feasts were held to celebrate holidays or special events such as weddings and knighting ceremonies. Sumptuous banquets elevated the everyday activity of eating into splendid affairs, allowing nobles to demonstrate their generosity and refinement. Manuscript illuminations commemorated not only these medieval hunts and festivities but also represented banquets from classical antiquity and the Bible with the same trappings of contemporary elite culture.
In A Hunter and Dogs Pursuing a Fallow Deer (about 1430-40) and Hunters and Dogs Pursuing a Wild Goat (about 1430-40), well-trained hounds chase a stag while eager archers aim their crossbows at a wild goat below them. These illuminations appear in the Book of the Hunt, the most popular hunting manual of the Middle Ages. Biblical subjects could also be given the chivalric touch, as in a depiction of The Writing on the Wall at Belshazzar's Feast (about 1400-1410). The Old Testament tale is visualized as a medieval king's banquet, complete with musicians who entertain the group as they dine in luxury.
Games and Tournaments
For the medieval nobility, games and tournaments were more than entertaining pastimes. Learned from a young age, aristocratic activities such as chess, swordplay, and sports were part of a broader education in acquiring skills of strategy, strength, and dexterity, as well as abstract qualities of courtesy and fairness. Tournaments were among the grandest and most important contests in the later Middle Ages, with jousts becoming the highlight of festivals that could last for several days. Elegant images rendered by medieval artists provided visual instruction in competitive techniques and commemorated events of historical significance.
In Initial E: An Equestrian Duel between a Creditor and a Debtor (about 1290-1310), a man who has borrowed money disputes the charges of his creditor. The sum owed by the debtor is significant, and, by order of the king, he is required to challenge the creditor to a duel. This manuscript contains the only known copy of the law code of Aragon ordered by
Chivalry in the Middle Ages is on view
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